Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Courage To Change PAC, which markets itself to potential donors on the left as “an answer to a broken system” (fig. 1), was exposed by Politico as giving to many incumbent Democrats in the first quarter of 2021 in advance of the 2022 midterms. The PAC, which claims to use contributions “ to make early investments in progressive challengers that can even the playing field against established incumbents”, in fact gave over $100,000 in campaign donations to right-wing incumbent Democrats who took corporate PAC money, including $5,000 to Ron Kind, the Wisconsin Democrat who succeeded Joe Crowley as chair of the New Democrat Coalition in 2013, according to FEC filings (link 1).
Courage To Change, which alleges to back candidates who don’t take corporate PAC donations, started off the 2021–22 election cycle by giving the maximum amount to 31 candidates, almost all of whom directly received corporate PAC money, according to those candidates’ filing documents accessed through Opensecrets. This marks a stark departure from the small-dollar donor networks that fueled her 2018 run and rise to stardom within the Democratic Party. To provide proper analysis, I’ve analyzed who received Courage To Change money based on several categories, as well as taking a look at each recipient’s individual finances from the 2018 & 2020 cycles.
With the inevitable heat this article will cause, I would like to put this out here right away: I am NOT a journalist! I’m an opposition researcher and a campaign consultant. The reason I’m posting this is because I feel it’s incredibly relevant to leftist organizing efforts that our fundraising goes where we need it to. As leftists, we only have a limited amount of funding each cycle to go around, and we need to know it’s going to the right people in the right places. If we can’t trust our “allies” in office, we need better & more honest allies.
What has leftists up in arms about this is not only the timing, but the optics and even principle of the matter. Small-dollar donors heard from other allies, such as Justice Democrats in emails dating back to last February (fig. 2) , that Courage To Change was “building out the infrastructure to back more progressive, insurgent candidates who will fight for our values in Congress. This is the kind of progressive infrastructure we need to take on the entrenched incumbents who are backed by the DCCC.” The 2022 cycle has marked a noted change in direction from this ethos for Courage To Change however, as cross-referencing the recipient list shows that every single one of the 31 Q1 2021 recipients of Courage to Change funding for the 2022 primary cycle received DCCC funding in the 2020 cycle, according to Opensecrets. (None of the Squad members received campaign donations from the DCCC in 2020.) The DCCC has openly fought back against primary challengers to the left of the Democrats, going so far as to institute a blacklist against vendors who primary their candidates (link 2).
As the 2020 campaign cycle wound to a close, AOC’s Courage to Change PAC was sitting on over $500,000 in cash on hand according to end-of-year FEC reports. Through 2020’s cycle, candidates like Kara Eastman & Katie Porter received boosts from CTC. However, the first candidates to get 2022 primary campaign donations from Courage To Change PAC were not AOC’s Squad sisters, but a group of 31 Democrats that skew overly corporatist.
Out of the 31 recipients of Courage To Change donations in 2021, just 6 of 31 — a measly 19.4% — cosponsor the Medicare For All bill, HR1976, currently proposed by Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal. (Interesting side note: Of the 6 CFC PAC recipients that also signed on as cosponsors for HR1976, only 3 are CPC members: Peter DeFazio, Mike Levin, & Katie Porter.) Further, taking both the 2019 and 2021 Resolution for a Green New Deal into account, only 4 of the 31 cosponsored either version of the Resolution. In fact, 21 of 31 of Courage To Change recipients in Q1 2021 for the 2022 primaries didn’t cosponsor any of three key pieces of progressive legislation: Medicare For All, the Green New Deal, or the bill to end the Yemen War.
Further, 54.8% of the recipients — 17 of 31 — received money from the New Democrat Coalition, including Ron Kind, the successor to Joe Crowley at the NDC. The former Democratic Leadership Council has made their life’s work into the corporatization of the Democratic Party & fighting the left influences within their own party, which made this a stark departure from the 2020 cycle for CTC.
All of this is greatly concerning, but the only thing that Courage To Change PAC promised was that candidates would not take corporate PAC money. However, the DCCC *does* take corporate PAC money, and since every recipient also took DCCC money, we can then conclude that every candidate that Courage To Change PAC donated to in 2021 received some form of corporate PAC money, be that directly or through various connected Democratic Party PACs. In fact, according to CRP (3), Democrats have benefitted from more dark money since Trump’s election in both the midterms and in 2020’s presidential cycle, where anonymous donors gave more than $400 million in dark money to boost Democrats, more than double what Republicans received last cycle.
Going one step further than this, while analyzing the 2020 campaign finance data for each of these candidates, I kept track of three specific groups of corporate PAC money that would be antithetical to the M4A/GND/End The Wars leftist ethos; namely, the fossil fuel, pharmaceutical/health insurance, and defense industries. The results are damning: 17 of 31 took money from military contractor PACs, 19 took fossil fuel PAC money, and 20 took money from the health insurance or pharmaceutical industries.
This all begs the question — why did AOC’s team do this? Why would Courage To Change, which claims to fight for the underdog, reach out to the DCCC, get the direct deposit numbers for these specific colleagues’ campaigns, & then donate the maximum to their 2022 primary campaigns? This is off-brand for the 2019 version of AOC, but sadly on par with the new one who refers to Nancy Pelosi as “Mama Bear”. 25 of 31 of these House members won their first elections alongside AOC in 2018.
While there are others listed who received Courage to Change money, this seems to be an olive branch for many in the 2018 class. This normally wouldn’t be a problem; however, in this scenario, there are two. The first is that the money was delivered unsolicited, leaving some, such as Conor Lamb, to return the money. This not only backfires on winning goodwill within the Democrats, if that is indeed AOC’s goal, but also alienates the small-dollar donor base that AOC relies on. With the Squad Victory Fund donating over $400,000 to this effort as well as AOC transferring $10000 of her campaign money over, this is all-encompassing; if you’ve donated at all to any Squad member, you’ve now donated some portion of that to folks like Ron Kind or Sharice Davids, just two of the 14 Courage To Change recipients who received the unholy trifecta of fossil fuel, military contractor, and pharmaceutical/health insurance corporate PAC money.
The second one is more significant and relevant to the left. AOC & her allies could’ve easily established a “Class of 2018 Solidarity PAC” to protect the 25 members of Congress that first won office in 2018, but she didn’t. She chose to have a PAC that said they’d only back candidates who didn’t take corporate PAC money, but they couldn’t change the mission statement or hire someone there to do the basic research of seeing who directly & indirectly takes corporate PAC money. They could have had that, but they chose not to.
In short, AOC & Courage to Change chose to lie to the left.
When you talk about an officeholder and their Leadership PAC, the buck inevitably stops with the officeholder themselves. Being that Courage To Change is an AOC-affiliated Leadership PAC, AOC is still in charge of that fundraising behemoth. AOC, at the end of the day, approved of these donations and policies, or else I’m certain that we’d have heard about heads rolling after this blunder. But there weren’t any reports coming out of DC or NYC about a staffing shakeup.
If they didn’t legally have to report the numbers, you wouldn’t know about AOC breaking her promise to leftists with regards to where her Leadership PAC spends its money. But as of writing, the PAC mission hasn’t changed, though Courage to Change — and AOC herself — certainly have. Leftists would be doing themselves a world of good to stop donating to Democrat politicians and start organizing the movement within your communities. That is not to say to give up on electoral politics, but instead to scrutinize our allies & hold one another to higher standards moving forward, but also to start pushing for candidates who run outside of the two corrupt political parties. Otherwise, they will continue to amass wealth and power for themselves, all while failing to deliver on the policies that most Americans overwhelmingly favor.
About the author:
I’m an organizer & opposition researcher in Baltimore, MD. When not railing against corruption in our political system, I’m probably watching the Orioles or gaming. You can follow me on Twitter or Instagram @justininbmore.